Where teachers are the enemy

14th March 2003 at 00:00
ZIMBABWE.

Karen MacGregor talks to union leader unbowed after being tortured by police.

Raymond Majongwe, general secretary of the Progressive Teachers' Union, looks difficult to scare. The big man with the booming voice says he is not intimidated by police who have arrested and assaulted him several times.

"Our treatment by government has been pregnant with contempt," said the 31-year-old PTU leader whose recent protest album was banned by the government.

His CD "Which way Africa?" has sold 2,500 copies on the streets , far less for its musical value ("I'm told I can't sing," he laughs) than for its messages against dictatorship, corruption and victimisation.

The country's 103,000 teachers, accused by ministers of supporting the opposition party, have suffered human rights abuses over the past two years. The profession is also in dispute over salaries, which are now half those of nurses.

The "shocking paradox", Majongwe says, is that President Robert Mugabe was a teacher. Yet there has been an "unrelenting attack" on teachers by militias supporting him, he said. While some of them were apparently acting without instruction, others were "taking a cue from reckless statements made by government officials, who have made teachers enemies of the state".

Schools have also been used as bases for "Green bombers", ruling Zanu-PF supporting youth militia who have spearheaded violence against the opposition.

A report titled "Teaching them a lesson", released by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, says that attacks on teachers have "continued unabated since June 2000".

Violence has been focused on rural areas, where teachers traditionally have considerable local influence, to limit their sway.

The report documents 238 cases of abuses against teachers in the 18 months to June 2002. They include 75 assaults, 46 cases of intimidation or discrimination and 34 of torture. This "is merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg", the report said.

"After 2000 and the creation of the Movement for Democractic Change, teachers became obvious targets and were victimised," Majongwe said.

"Teachers have been raped and killed. For three years we have known no peace."

He was arrested three times last year - twice in October by police who accused him of visiting schools in Harare to encourage teachers to join a pay strike. The second time, he said: "I was tortured with electric shocks to my genitals, arms, mouth, fingers and toes."

He still suffers sight problems and headaches, but said the beatings and torture he suffered "reinvigorated and refocused me".

"Success in Africa has to come via pain."

The PTU's new office in a house near downtown Harare was raided by intelligence agents the day before our interview. The union has been declared illegal, and is under surveillance. Such treatment is not meted out to the rival Zimbabwe Teachers' Association, which is pro-government.

Trade unions and non-governmental organisations have borne the brunt of police action, he said. "We need foot soldiers - people who will mobilise even in the face of arrest and brutality," he said. "People must pay a price for freedom."

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